Mything the Mark
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever made a mistake? Not just a, “Sorry I bumped your coffee or knocked your glass of water,” sort of mistake. Bigger than an, “Oops I’m late to our meeting.” I’m talking about the kind of mistake you regret for a while, something that has consequences. I remember my mom sending me to apologize to our neighbor for – I don’t even remember what now – but my friend and I had done something stupid and I was sent over to make amends. I remember spending the afternoon working in her yard. Another time, when I was older and didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder telling me what I had to do to fix things, I remember not going over to my friend’s house to straighten things out and make amends. Instead I tried to ignore it, tried to minimize it, tried to wait it out. In other words, I froze. And things festered and grew worse. I felt paralyzed by the situation and now had two problems: the mistake I had made that had injured my friend and my inability to deal with it.
In theological terms I had both a sin of commission and a sin of omission to deal with. It feels like I’m stretching it to talk in terms of the word ‘sin’ but in the Gospels and the New Testament letters, this is the concept that sin is most commonly referring to: relationships and the need for forgiveness. But we don’t talk about sin much in Unitarian Universalist circles and so the word feels weird in our ears.
As a preacher was delivering a lengthy sermon, she noticed she had a slumbering congregant. Enraged, she interrupted herself and called out to the congregation: “All who are for salvation, stand up!” Everyone rose except for that one sleeping soul. Furious, the preacher motioned for the congregation to be seated and then screamed at the top of her lungs: “All of you who are for sin, stand up!” At this, the sleeping man woke with a start, jumped to his feet, and stood shocked, rubbing his eyes. He looked around at the seated congregation, thought for a moment, and then said to his pastor, “Reverend, I confess that I don’t know what we’re voting on, but it looks like you and I are the only ones for it!”
Sin, the word appears in the Bible over two thousand times, whereas, for example, the word love makes only some 350 appearances. There are over twenty Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible that are translated into the single English word ‘sin.’ The Greek and Hebrew words cover nuances such as state of being, context, degree, intention, and motivation. Two of these words, Hamartia (?μαρτ?α) in Greek and Cheit (??????) in Hebrew, are rendered as ‘to cause unintentional fault, to err, to stumble.’ They both refer to an archery metaphor: to miss the mark or target. To conceive of sin as an attempt to hit the bull’s-eye but instead to miss the mark, helps to distance this nuance from the other concepts of sin. The Bible still talks about sin as a transgression, as lustful iniquity, as a state of ontological humanness, and as a willful act of evil (such as torture – as I will be speaking of next week.) But the word sin also covers the idea that you made a mistake that carries consequences, that you’ve broken something that needs repair. Contrary to the joke, sin is not the opposite of salvation. Sin, as the word is used most of the time in the Bible, just is not that big. Centuries later when the theological concept of Original Sin is articulated we find something as big as salvation.
The passage we had this morning (Mark 2:1-12) uses this Greek ‘missing the mark’ version of the word sin when Jesus says to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Indeed, the most common Greek word for sin is this one that can be rendered: to miss the mark. Most of the time when Jesus or Paul speak of sin, this is concept they are offering rather than the stronger meaning that is used for willful iniquity and purposeful offense. “Forgive us our trespasses, our debts, our sins … as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” (Luke 11:4) Forgive us for missing the mark, for missing the target. So, this paralyzed man is dropped down in front of Jesus through the roof, interrupting Jesus while he is teaching a big class, and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven.” My first thought is, what sort of sins could this paralyzed man have, surely not anything too egregious! He’s paralyzed! Then I think, this poor guy: he goes through all this trouble, he and his friends make all this fuss to ask Jesus for a healing, and Jesus looks at him and forgives his sins. It’s like, “Thanks, but I was more interested in walking again.”
Many of us have experienced literal interpretations of a passage like this: Jesus forgives this person; this makes the authorities miffed, people can’t go around forgiving sins that were not committed against them. It’s just not done that way. If someone sins against you – makes a mistake, errs, causes some unintended grievance – it’s not up to someone else to forgive them, it is up to you. And conversely, you can’t go around forgiving people for the mistakes and sins they have done to others. It doesn’t work that way. The authorities were upset. But what they didn’t understand, the standard literalist interpretation tells us, is that Jesus has special authority to forgive and (here’s the Good News) we, ourselves, are forgiven. Thus, the whole Gospel message of salvation is wrapped up neatly in this little story! And to back it up, to prove himself in front of these authorities, Jesus goes one step further and heals the paralyzed man who then stands up, gathers his mat and heads out the door. Many of us have been given the solution to what a passage like this means. There are no more questions to ask: the passage is about how Jesus is God’s Son who brings the Good News to the people. That what this passage means, end of story – at least in the literal type of interpretation. It is always all about Jesus and how important and special he is.
You’ve perhaps heard the story about the pastor giving the children’s message during church. He gathered all the children around him to give the brief lesson before dismissing them for Sunday school. He was using squirrels for a lesson on being industrious.
He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly. “This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…”
Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I *know* the answer must be Jesus … but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”
The literal interpretations have few options beyond that the stories are always all about Jesus. Yet if we read the accounts of Jesus’ interaction with people only as historical and literal, then we miss a very deep level of message. As UU minister and author John Nichols offers this (in his book, A Wind Swept over the Waters: Reflections on 60 Favorite Bible Passages,)
The writers of the Bible often use metaphors, expanding the ways we can appreciate it. In Psalm 23, the writer refers to God preparing “a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” Taken literally, these words describe the writer preparing to enjoy a banquet while surrounded by envious antagonists. But the metaphorical meaning is deeper and wiser: the psalmist feels like an honored guest in God’s house even though, like all of us, he has enemies. (p xii)
And this allow us to step away from the ridiculous image of a banquet meal with God the Maitre d’ taking your order as a horde of bad guys wait patiently in the background. We step away from that literal image and notice instead the times in our own lives when there has been respite in a storm, ease from certain trouble, relief from threats to your well-being.
Looking back at the story of Jesus healing of a paralyzed man, it is possible to look at the metaphorical or even mythic level of this passage to see how it might touch us. But that is not easy to do, is it? For starters, it is easy to see the metaphor, such as God preparing a table before me, when a metaphor is clearly the intent. Arguably the Gospel writers were intending for the work to be seen literally – or at least, literally as well as metaphorically. I think that is the key. Unitarian Universalists have a hard time hearing the miracle stories or the healing and exorcism stories in the Gospels. It is hard to let go of the scientific and historic question: did it really happen like that?
Perhaps another day I might be interested in debating the historicity of a passage from the Gospels. Today I am listening to the metaphor of this story. There are so many great stories that we UUs avoid: as in the 1970’s Jesus musicals Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, scenes of Jesus walking on the water and casting our demons are just not in the picture. I’ve been listening to the music from Godspell this weekend mostly because SRO will be holding auditions for it this summer and my son Keenan is going to try out. The thing about Godspell that stands out is the complete lack of miracles and healings.
And yet there are some powerful metaphors in the miracle and healing stories. In Chapter 5 of Mark, Jesus meets up with the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20). Jesus says, “What is your name,” and the man says “My name is Legion; for we are many.” What a powerful metaphor! I can’t figure out who I really am because it feels like there are dozens of me inside me and not all of them are attractive. In Chapter 6 of Mark, Jesus is teaching a multitude out by a lake, it grows late and everyone is hungry (6:30-44). All they have is five loaves of bread and two fish – but five thousand people are fed! What a powerful metaphor! Don’t hold back just because you think you have a small amount. Do what you can with what you have, because generosity and hospitality are not scare commodities! In Chapter 8 of Mark, people bring a blind man to Jesus (8:22-26). Jesus touches him and asks, “Can you see anything?” The man looks around and says he can almost make out people but they sort of look like walking trees. Jesus touches his eyes a second time and the man can see clearly. What a powerful metaphor! You tried to explain it to me or to show me once already, but my vision is not large enough to take in what you are offering me. Sometimes life must throw the lesson at you more than once – hopefully then only twice. These stories are not found in Thomas Jefferson’s cut-and-paste Bible. They are not among Rev. John Nichols’ 60 favorite Bible passages that I quoted from earlier (Wind Swept over the Water.) These passages do not turn up in most Unitarian Universalist sermons. Perhaps we suddenly become literalists when presented with miracles and healing stories. But we can look at these stories as parables, if you will, as metaphors or even myths. Leaving aside the facts for another day, we look to the story and see what life-giving messages may be revealed.
Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” And later he said “Stand up, take your mat and go home.” Two things happened here. This man was obviously paralyzed physically and also spiritually broken in some way, (as were many others around the room – metaphorically.) Don’t think of this literally to say a physical ailment is a sign of an inner spiritual ailment. (Although it does happen that your inner state – your attitude, sense of self, level of energy – has a scientifically verifiable effect on your physical well-being.) But let’s not even go there with this right now. Instead, consider the way your inner state effects your outward actions. Have you ever felt paralyzed, like you knew you had something to do, something you felt you should do, but you didn’t or couldn’t do it? Have you ever made a mistake and then rather than apologizing or owning up you simply avoid it? It’s like missing a payment for a bill and being charged interest. If you don’t deal with it, the debt continues to grow until it is unmanageable. It is like giving an offence to a friend and then fearing to face it, you avoid it; which adds interest to the offence, which adds a second problem: my original offence to my friend and my apparent refusal to accept my mistake, my sin.
And when I saw my friend later that week in a large social setting I felt paralyzed, I felt stuck, like there was a script I had to follow in which I ignore my friend and pretend nothing’s wrong. It was like I was waiting for someone to look over my shoulder and tell me how to resolve this. It suddenly hit me. My mother is not going to make me go over there to apologize and make amends. Jesus is not going to burst through the roof to say I am forgiven and can go home now. This isn’t going to change unless I stop paralyzing myself.
But like a good Unitarian Universalist I recognize that Jesus is a guide, an example to emulate. Jesus represents the divinity that is within every one of us, that spark of holiness, that religious conscience leading us to know what is right and what is good. I have that within me which can release me from my paralysis, if I will but listen to my better self, the deeper conscience reminding me that I don’t have to be stuck. I don’t have to be stuck in this pattern of avoiding a broken relationship. I don’t have to be stuck in a pattern of copying or rebelling against the example of my parents. I don’t have to be stuck in the sin of pride. I don’t have to be stuck in a pattern of hiding from life, of being afraid to be wrong. And neither do you.
Stand up, take your mat and go home. Stand up and go to your friend and repair your mistake. Go home and be healed. In what ways are you paralyzed? Is there a deeper level at which something is broken? What would it be like if someone said to you, “My child, your sins are forgiven. Now go seek forgiveness. Stand up, take your mat and come home.”
In a world without end, may it be so.